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School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues
10 CEUs School Shootings: Ethical & Confidentiality Boundary Issues

Section 7
Campus Threat Management

Question 7 | Test | Table of Contents | School Shootings CEU Courses
Social Worker CEU, Psychologist CE, Counselor CEU, MFT CEU

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In the last section, we discussed six cultural scripts that influence a shooter’s decision to commit a violent act.  These six scripts are changing social status through performance, independence from adults, living with it, running away or suicide, violent fantasies, and threats.

In this section, we will discuss three factors that may prevent children from reporting threats from another student to adults. These three factors are violent language and the presumption of innocence, the adolescent code, and perceptual frames. As I discuss these three factors, evaluate if you are currently treating a student who may have influence over a potential shooter. At what point would it be appropriate for you to violate the confidentiality boundary with your client and notify administration of a potential threat?

In each of the school shootings previously discussed in this course, at least several students had heard threats or warnings from the shooters prior to the event, yet none of these children went to adults with concerns. 

3 Factors of Prevention

♦ # 1 - Violent Language & Presumption of Innocence
One of the first factors that may have prevented children from coming forward is the frequency of violent language and the subsequent presumption of innocence. As you know, violent language, especially among teens, is commonplace, and usually casual.  Sports teams, for example, will refer to a victory as "killing the other team."  There are two aspects of this which are applicable to the shootings we have so far discussed.

The first aspect is summed up by Stacey Hunt, a classmate of Mitchell Johnson. Stacey indicated that she had heard Mitchell referring to violent acts before the event. Stacey stated that Mitchell had talked about having a list, and that, "everybody was going to pay.  But he didn’t say that he was going to go and pull the fire alarm, get everyone outside and shoot them, you know? He was going around bragging like any other kid would when they were mad." Clearly Stacey, like her classmates, attributed nothing out of the ordinary to such violent threats, rather normalizing them as a common expression of frustration and anger. 

A second aspect is that students like Michael and Mitchell were widely known as pranksters, bullies, and prone to acting out. Many attributed these threats to the same behaviors, assuming that the shooters were merely looking for attention. In some cases, shooters may have made so many warnings beforehand that their classmates become convinced that nothing would actually happen. Even instances of a shooter bringing a gun to school may have been interpreted as this bluffing, show-off behavior. 

♦ # 2 - The Adolescent Code
A second factor that may prevent children from reporting threats is the adolescent code.  According to one student, this code is composed of rules such as "Don’t say you like school.  Don’t get good grades. You gotta ridicule people that are supposed to be gay. Don’t be quiet and be crazy." The code included aspects of resistance to and resentment towards adults in authority, and casual remarks about "taking over the school" or burning it down are a common means of establishing oneself as acquiescent to the adolescent code.  

Part of this code implies that coming forward with concerns about a threat is equal to being an accomplice with adult authority. Many students asked whether they would report a student cheating on a test, indicate that their decision would rely highly on what other students were saying; Students fear breaking the code and losing face more than they are willing to adhere to a moral or ethical code of conduct. Even in the case of violence, students tend to fear being seen as a "rat" for telling on another student, which exposes them to a stigma similar to that held against scab workers during a union strike. 

Children who are identified as "tattletales" face severe social sanctions, and are frequently popular targets for physical violence. Are you currently treating a student or know of a student who is being harassed for being gay? Does this student have the potential for violence?

The desire to avoid betraying a friend is also a factor in obeying the adolescent code. A student may fear the loss of a friendship enough to merit not telling a school official that a friend had brought a weapon to school. A friend of Michael Carneal’s who observed him bringing a gun to school indicated he was unwilling to tell someone because he did not want to get his friend in trouble.

♦ # 3 - Perpetual Frames
In addition to violent language and the presumption of innocence and the adolescent code, a third factor that may prevent students from coming forward about a threat is frames. It is clear that, especially recently, children in schools are more receptive to the thought of informing an adult about a threat, even from a close friend. However, this is only an acceptable course of action when the threat is perceived as "serious" by the student, and in this way, willingness to report a threat depends heavily on what frames school children use for identifying a threat as serious.

3 Frames School Children Use for Identifying a Threat as Serious

-- Frame # 1 - Empty Threats
One of the frames that forms as a result of the violent language common among adolescents is the cycle of empty threats.  As you know, each empty threat made by a peer reinforces the frame that threats are not usually serious, and therefore it would be more costly to report a threat than to ignore it.

-- Frame # 2 - Social Status
Children also have frames for what kind of student is likely to make a serious threat, and thus are less likely to report a student who does not fit the popular model of a threatening student. A socially active student from a "good" background is unlikely to be perceived as serious or dangerous, while many students would consider reporting a student perceived to be a "loner."

-- Frame # 3 - Jokesters
A third frame, which proved significant in Michael Carneal’s case, is that kids who frequently make jokes are unlikely to be serious when making threats.  Michael had friends and was known for being a jokester who "talked big."  Tragically, when students are dismissive of a shooter’s threats based on their frame-based assessments, this often is perceived as a challenge by the shooter, strengthening his or her resolve.

Clearly, students privy to threats are ideal candidates for heading off school shootings.  However, these same children are notoriously bad at screening out real threats.  Think of a middle school child you have seen in your practice.  How capable do you feel he or she is in distinguishing a real threat from a casual one?  Would he or she have the capacity to understand the risk involved?

Stan, 48, was very concerned about his son Mike’s best friend Derek. Stan stated, "They’re both 13, and I know kids that age talk big. But I came home unexpectedly early the other day and Mike didn’t realize. As I was approaching his room to tell him I was home, I accidentally overheard Derek talking about how he hated his homeroom teacher and was going to blow him away!

"I got real scared, especially since my boy was just laughing! I tried to talk to Mike about it… but he just got defensive. He told me basically that Derek wouldn’t do anything because he’s got a good home life and lots of friends. How can I convince him that any mention of violence is serious?"

♦ Technique: "Avoid the Big Talk" Variation
I suggested that Stan try a variation on the "Avoid the Big Talk" technique discussed in Section 2.  I stated to Stan, "The next time you read a newspaper article about school violence, you might show it to Mike. Point out what you notice as important. If the article talks about how kids from any background can become violent, bring this idea up. If not, you might mention how you feel the article is leaving that out.

"If Mike states he doesn’t believe you that any student, even from a good home, can become violent, invite him in a neutral tone to research the topic on the internet. State that you’d like to hear what Mike finds out. The key is to invite Mike to share his feelings and ideas by modeling constructive ways to share your own."

In this section, we have discussed three factors that may prevent children from reporting threats from another student to adults.  These three factors are violent language and the presumption of innocence, the adolescent code, and perceptual frames.  At what point would it be appropriate for you to violate the confidentiality boundary with your client and notify administration of a potential threat?

In the next section, we will discuss four stages of early community recovery from a school shootings tragedy.  These four stages are closing ranks, cracks in the foundation, healing at different speeds, and the impact of shooter’s families.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

Vieselmeyer, J., Holguin, J., & Mezulis, A. (2017). The role of resilience and gratitude in posttraumatic stress and growth following a campus shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 62–69.

Warren, L. J. (2017). Special section part 3: Campus threat management. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 4(2), 111.

What are three factors that may prevent children from reporting threats from another student to adults? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

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